Who doesn't love a good tube amp? There's an almost primeval satisfaction in plugging your guitar into one of the best tube amps before striking a big open E chord. Bam!
So, what is it about tube amps? Obviously, there's the tone. It always sounds complex and organic, whether smooth, dark and rich, or clean and sparkly. Then there's the feel; the way a tube amp interacts with your fingers as you coax notes from your strings, saturating the tone as you dig in, cleaning it up as you back off.
Finally, there's the simplicity. Tube amps are rarely complex to use; often there's just a couple of channels that you get to shape with half-a-dozen chicken-head knobs, plus maybe some proper spring reverb. That's it. Oh, and naturally they take pedals really well.
Do you want to spend your time endlessly menu-diving with some needlessly complicated modelling amp? Or do you value simplicity and authenticity? Take it from us, there's nothing like the real thing.
With so many tube amps out there, of all different shapes, sizes and power ratings, selecting the right one can be a challenge. Fear not, though: with this guide, we're going to help you to choose the best tube amps for you.
Best tube amps: Our top picks
All of the amps in this best tube amps guide are outstanding in their own way – and, of course, some are better for specific genres than others. That said, the amp we keep coming back to again and again is the sublime Mesa/Boogie California Tweed 6V6 4:40.
It looks absolutely fabulous and delivers out-of-this-world tone, from sparkly Fenderish cleans to highly complex, saturated drive. The onboard Multi-Watt selector provides so many possibilities, massively broadening the California Tweed's scope. It’s a fitting tribute to Leo Fender from Randall Smith; one that showcases both of their geniuses admirably.
Another amp we're having trouble unplugging from is the ubiquitous Fender Blues Junior IV. On paper, it shouldn't be able to compete with some of the expensive hand-wired exotica here, yet we can't stop playing it. This simple, affordable little guitar amp is popular for a reason – it's an absolute delight.
Best tube amps: Product guide
Mesa amps have a reputation for being complex monsters, and we love them for that. Loads of gain and lots of sliders, switches, knobs – you get the picture.
However, this stunning amp is a complete departure. It's Randall Smith's homage to Leo Fender's amp designs of the 1950s – hence the 'Tweed' moniker. The story goes that when Randall started building Mesa/Boogie amps in the 1960s, he was heavily influenced by Leo's tweed circuits. He loved the organic-sounding voicings, and the way they smoothly transitioned from sparkly clean to distortion and back again, which was partly down to their use of 6V6 tubes.
The California Tweed 6V6 4:40 is a delightfully simple amp, both to behold and to use. The uncluttered control panel features just seven chicken-head knobs for gain, master, EQ, presence and reverb, plus a Multi-Watt selector, which alters the output from 40 watts down to just two. There's a normal input plus a clean input, which is padded down so that it doesn't drive the preamp as much for maximum headroom.
The Multi-Watt selector is fascinating because it offers much more than just the five power levels marked around the dial: 2W, 10W, 20W, 30W and 40W. For each selection, different circuits and operating classes are brought into play, offering different voicings and providing scope for endless tonal experimentation.
Simplistically, the 2W setting is perfect for high-gain sounds in a home setting, while clicking around to 40W will give you a ton of clean headroom for your effects rig. However, the reality is much more nuanced and interesting than that.
Whatever setting you choose, Randall's California Tweed delivers on its promise of delicious 6V6 smoothness and dynamics. With its warm bottom end, crystal highs and long-tank spring reverb, it'll reward you with some of the best tones you'll ever hear from your guitar.
The California Tweed is also available as a head.
This amp's a right little devil. Provoke it and it'll spit scalding fire and brimstone, but backing off a touch will reward you with the most gorgeous saturated tones, worthy of boutique amps many times the price.
It's wearing a Fender badge, so you can also expect the kind of clean, sparkly tones that will always be associated with Leo. In fact, this latest iteration, the IV, has been modded to provide more headroom – a quality that was somewhat lacking in previous models.
The reworked preamp circuit also lends a creamier, more powerful tone across the board. Lows have lost their flabbiness and the highs glister rather than pierce. Stomping on the Fat switch now serves up mids beefier than a thick slice of sirloin.
The Blues Junior IV's 12" Celestion A-Type speaker, famed for its sparkle at lower volumes and adored for its growl when driven, is an inspired choice. However, if you prefer, you can choose Fender's slightly more expensive Blues Junior Lacquered Tweed version, which is fitted with a more vintage-voiced Jensen speaker.
Awesome tone aside, a big part of the Blues Junior IV's appeal is its manageable size and weight, and affordable price. Few other amps of this size and cost can compete with its lineage, all-tube design and genuine spring reverb.
Downsides? If you're looking for a home practice amp, then be warned that, despite its small size, the Blues Junior IV is a pretty loud bit of kit – perfect, in fact, miked up for small gigs. Little amps can sound a bit 'boxy', but this feisty Fender is no worse than any of its competitors in that respect.
Read the full Fender Blues Junior IV review
Reading through a list of AC30 users is like rattling through a Who's Who of contemporary music – The Beatles, the Stones, The Yardbirds, Rory Gallagher, The Edge, Brian May, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Noel Gallagher, Matt Bellamy, Tom DeLonge… Who hasn't played this thing?
The AC30's got a reputation for two things: unique tone and unparalleled volume. This is the sound that helped power The Shadows in the late '50s, the British Invasion of the mid-'60s, rock throughout the '70s and countless genres since.
We can thank a bespectacled Hank Marvin for the ear-splitting volumes this amp is capable of. In the late '50s, The Shadows’ Vox AC15s were being drowned out by Cliff Richard’s screaming fans, so Hank asked for something a bit louder. Vox founder Thomas Jennings obliged in the shape of the AC30.
Vox has been through a lot of different owners since then, and there have been countless iterations of the AC30 – some good, some bad. This particular version, with its hand wiring, Alnico speakers, Top Boost circuit and ECC83/EL84 tubes, tips a hat to the legendary early-'60s spec. Without spending an arm and a leg on an original, it's the closest you're currently going to get to the amps produced in the golden years of the AC30's history.
What defines that AC30 sound? Hank Marvin used one for its colorful, chimey-clean sound that's very different in character to a sparkly Fender but just as enchanting. Rory Gallagher and Brian May rated the AC30 for its fat, smooth, progressive overdrive. Everyone, it seems, loves the complex mids and classic crunch tones.
Vox also sells a hand-wired version with Celestion G12M Greenback speakers for almost half the price, but the Celestion Blues will give you the most authentic tone. The cheaper-still, non-hand-wired 'Custom' versions also include reverb and tremolo, if this is important to you.
Back in the '50s and '60s, Supro amps really were rock 'n’ roll royalty, defining the sound of a generation. This little amp channels much of that vintage vibe, both in terms of tone and looks – its quirky appearance is lifted straight from those ’50s gems, such as the Supro Chicago 51.
A quick glance at the specs reveals that the Delta King 12 is clearly a direct rival to the similarly retro-looking Fender Blues Junior IV. Both are small, straightforward 15W all-tube amplifiers with spring reverb and surprisingly affordable price tags.
Engage the FET-driven boost and this little amp really sings – it's easily loud enough for rowdy pub gigs (there's a line out for larger venues). Call up the Pigtronix FAT gain circuit – Supro and Pigtronix are brand stablemates – to add a knee-deep covering of silky-smooth overdrive. Both features can be kicked in using the optional SF4 footswitch; it's just a shame that Supro didn't see fit to bundle it in for free.
Even without the boost or drive, this little Delta King will break up very pleasingly with enough input from your guitar's volume knob and good playing dynamics. Back off, and the tone cleans up – just the way a good tube amp should.
So, this or the Fender? Well, although the specs are similar, there are some key differences – aesthetics, power amp tubes, speaker, overdrive and so on – so it really comes down to which voicing you prefer and whether you can live with the appearance. Us? We'd be happy with either.
Read the full Supro Delta King 12 review
Legend has it that when a young Eric Clapton mislaid his Marshall JTM45 in Greece, he asked Jim Marshall to design and build him a new combo amp, similar in size to the Vox AC30, so that he could easily fit it in the boot of his car. Jim's solution was the open-backed 1962, which Eric used on many of his best-known tracks with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers – hence the 'Bluesbreaker' suffix.
This particular version is part of Marshall's Vintage Reissues line, for those who “want to recreate nostalgic memories”. Up until recently, there was a considerably more expensive hand-wired version, but that appears to have been discontinued for now.
The sonic beauty of the 1962 lies in the way that it breaks up under power. For a Marshall, it's a relatively clean amp with a crisp high-end response that, even when wound up to 11, won't fully distort into mush. Instead, you're rewarded with beautifully articulate saturation that appears early and progressively. Compression, sustain, warmth and vibrance – what more could you ask for?
Apparently, Eric used his at full chat on the Blues Breakers album, to elicit the feedback he required, but you can still hear his distinct playing cutting through the mix like a hot knife through butter.
True to the original, this is a simple amp with tremolo, a handful of controls and little else in the way of features. Clearly, it's not an exact reproduction of Eric's amp – the hand-wired version was much closer – but it's in the right ballpark. If you're looking for that Beano tone, it's a great place to start – though it would be unfair to pigeon-hole it as a one-trick wonder. The 1962 is a vintage-voiced, well-mannered amp that'll deliver across many genres.
An original will probably set you back five figures or more, making this a bit of a bargain.
Blackstar's HT series of amplifiers took the guitar world by storm on their release, with their low-wattage offerings catching the eyes of guitarists all over the globe. The original HT-1 and HT-1R were both fan favorites, so it's only right that the MKII is killer, too.
The HT-1R MKII carries over all of the best features of its predecessors. With one watt of all-tube power, it creates an almost unstoppable amount of harmonically rich tonal bliss - something you'd struggle to expect from a single 8" speaker bolted onto a two-tube amp section.
This amp is not only tonally impressive - the features which Blackstar has managed to incorporate into the HT-1R MKII make it a contender for the title of 'ultimate home amp'. Of course, we're talking about the USB emulated output - which turns your HT-1R MKII into an audio interface, capturing and immortalising your all-tube tone.
Not too bad, eh? Well, for less than $350, it's marvellous.
Dave Friedman cut his teeth in 1980s LA, piecing together rigs for California's biggest rock stars and session musicians. That experience, together with an instinctive feel for knowing what working musicians really require from their equipment, led him to modding and developing amps for the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Steve Stevens and Jerry Cantrell.
It's fair to say that the culmination of all that knowledge is embedded in Friedman's flagship amp, the BE-100 Deluxe; a three channel, 100W all-tube head that's hand-wired in the US.
Like all Friedman amps, the BE-100 Deluxe is inspired by the Marshall sound of the 1960s – more specifically, Dave's favorite amp of that era, the 1968 JMP Plexi. The Friedman blueprint takes that 'British sound' and modernizes it, not just by adding more gain, but by figuring out how it's possible to get those outstanding driven tones at lower volumes.
The BE-100 Deluxe has two overdrive channels, developed, we suspect, for those who drool uncontrollably at the prospect of high-gain crunch. The first channel, the Brown Eye, is moderately driven, while retaining clarity and nuance. The second channel, the wonderfully named Hairy Brown Eye, is properly driven and then some, but also remains beautifully articulate. Each channel has its own gain and master controls, so you can fully explore one without influencing the other, and vice versa.
The third channel, which is heavily influenced by that aforementioned Plexi tone, is borrowed from Friedman's acclaimed Smallbox amp. Lower in gain, it cleans up really well, but delights in flaunting some Plexi-style grit when called upon to do so. All three channels respond superbly to playing dynamics – noodling through the BE-100 Deluxe is a very tactile experience.
It's easy, and rather lazy, to typecast the BE-100 Deluxe as a gain monster. In fact, it's way more versatile and capable than that. From 'Saturation Switch' to 'Thump Knob', this head is littered with useful tone-shaping tools that'll introduce you to a massive gamut of usable sounds. The only obstacle for most of us will be the eye-watering cost. We can all dream…
While we guitarists love nothing better than sitting at home in front of a cranked amp all day, it's probably safe to assume that family and neighbors rarely share the same level of enthusiasm. In fact, let's be honest, playing a 30W tube amp at volume – clean or driven – becomes pretty tiring for us, too, after a surprisingly short amount of time.
That's where a small, low-wattage tube amp like the Gremlin comes in. Like all Tone King amps, it rocks a goofy retro-futuristic aesthetic, which we really rate. If black is too somber for you, it's also available in Surf Green and a few other colors.
It's a really straightforward little amp based on a very simple premise – what if you could pack a vintage Fender Blackface and a Fender Tweed into the same little box? Plug your guitar into the Rhythm input and you've got Blackface tone at your fingertips, with bell-like highs and increased headroom. Plug into the Lead input to discover more distorted tones reminiscent of a driven Tweed amp. It's even possible to jump between them or blend the two channels with an optional A/B/Y switch.
Recognizing that even five watts can generate a significant amount of volume, Tone King has equipped the Gremlin with its Ironman II attenuator, which reduces volume even when the power amp is being fully driven. This preserves tone to an extent, despite the fact that the speaker won't be breaking up or compressing.
Controls are scant; there's just a rotary volume knob and a single tone knob. Nevertheless, it's easy to achieve a myriad of tones with the Gremlin's two channels, and rather refreshing not to get bogged down in endless EQ options.
Although the Gremlin is a natural for home or studio use, the line out means it's quite possible to gig with it.
Marshall's Origin series of amps bring a vintage vibe to the market without the price tag of an old Marshall. Their styling and design is that of an old-school amp, but each model brings modern touches and specifications to make life easy for the modern guitarist.
First of all, the Origin 20 contains 20W of all-tube power - not something to be sniffed at. This amp head, especially when going through a 4x12", can really move some air - and that's why Marshall has included a power reduction feature to the Origin line. Bring this amp down to either 3W or 0.5W, and either crank it for some authentic tube overdrive or bask in the glory of your full-stack home practice amp.
The Origin series keeps EQ and other settings fairly sparse. There are still plenty of clean and dirty tones you can coax out of this amp, but the 3-band EQ and Tilt control keep the majority of your focus on the playing - and not so much on the endless tone hunt.
The Origin series also includes and FX loop, enabling you to turn your vintage-inspired amp into a modern masterpiece. Where time-based modulation effects may have muddied your tone in the past, the Origin handles it with ease.
The original Orange tone, from the late '60s and early '70s, was associated with the sonic plat du jour – blues-tinged rock. Sadly, the brand fell into the doldrums in the ’80s, faring rather better with the '90s Britpop scene. But by the early 2000s, modern high-gain metal was inspiring the amp-buying public, forcing Orange to play catch-up.
The result was the Orange Rockerverb, a no-holds-barred metal amp that quickly became a favorite of Slipknot's Jim Root. Perfect for the genre, it took no prisoners!
The Rockerverb 50 MKIII is still a metal powerhouse, but over the years it's matured into a more rounded, multi-talented product. Most noticeably, there's much more headroom and the clean channel has been revoiced for a crisper response that's still warm but never murky.
The gain channel can still dish the dirt with the best of them, but even that cleans up rather nicely when you want it to.
Using the switchable power output is another way to shape your tone. At the full 50W, there's acres and acres of headroom to play with. However, engage half-power mode and the power amp starts clipping more readily, yielding more accessible, smooth-saturated tones. It's hardly an exclusive or ground-breaking feature, but it's welcome nonetheless.
There's a foot-switchable attenuator onboard, too, meaning you can crank away to your heart’s content, while keeping the volume at reasonable levels.
The Orange Rockerverb 50 MKIII is a modern classic that hasn't lost muscle tone or gained flab as it’s matured. Instead, it's broadened its skillset.
Best tube amps: Buying advice
Choosing the best tube amp for you
You can trust Guitar World Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing guitar products so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.
Choosing a tube amp is a lot more straightforward than picking out a modern modeling amp, because purity and simplicity are our focus, rather than complexity. As players of fine tube amps, we're so heavily into authentic tone that just the flick of a standby switch can send a tingle down our spine. Heaven is the warm glow of an EL84; the distinctive, faint hum of a valve-driven power section.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that tone isn't important when choosing a modeling amp. Brands such as Kemper, HeadRush, Line 6, Boss and Fractal have taken modeling so far in recent decades that their impressive boxes, laden with DSP firepower, are a force to be reckoned with. They sound incredible, offer a dizzying array of emulations and effects, and are far more convenient to use than tube amps in many circumstances.
For some of us, though, they offer too much choice. The bewildering number of available amp models, effects, routings and settings hampers our creativity rather than feeding it. If sculpting our tone involves scrolling through multiple mile-long menus, aren't we in danger of losing sight of what we're trying to achieve in the first place? Namely, making music?
Brian Eno once maintained that endless possibilities stifle creativity. His solution was to “confine people to a small area of maneuver”. As it happens, tube amps provide enough scope for maneuver, but as creative tools they're very manageable. And for the purists among us, they’re real.
Choosing the right one for you still requires a little knowledge, so here's our guide to what to look out for.
Choosing the right wattage
The first thing most guitarists consider when starting on their amp-buying journey is how loud they want their guitar-playing to be. Then they'll start looking at wattage figures because, well, that's how the industry groups its products.
The problem is that the wattage won't accurately tell you how loud an amp is, or what sort of volumes it can attain. That's partly because both volume and loudness are imprecise, subjective terms – if you think about it, we all perceive loudness differently.
We could take a look at things like sound-pressure levels and decibels (dB), and quote often-repeated facts such as: On a logarithmic scale, the barely audible is 0dB, a sound ten times louder is 10dB, while a sound 100 times louder is – wait for it – 20dB. But none of this is useful if the only figure we have to go on is wattage.
Our brains do perceive tube amps to be louder than solid-state amps, due to the way they break up and compress differently. Similarly, we also perceive distorted sounds to be louder than clean sounds. Our ears are also much less sensitive to low and high frequencies, which is why bass amps tend to be much more powerful than guitar amps.
In fact, this phenomenon becomes even more marked at low volumes, which is why home hifi systems often have a 'loudness' button to boost bass and treble frequencies when we're listening at neighbor-friendly levels. This is relevant, because if you turn a guitar amp that's not been voiced for low volume levels way down, you may find that most of your tone disappears.
To complicate matters even further, speaker size, number, impedance and efficiency have a huge part to play in how loud an amp sounds. As does room size, because a large amp in a small bedroom will always sound louder than it does on a big stage.
We wish there was a more precise way to predict the volume of your new tube amp but, for the reasons explained above, the vague notion of volume as a product of wattage is usually all we have. So, here's a rough guide to what's watt. Just take our recommendations with a pinch of salt – for example, the Vox AC30 is famously loud for a 30W amp.
1 – 3 watts
This is bedroom-volume territory. A 1W amp will still be surprisingly loud but will break up quite quickly. So, if you're looking for clean tones, you may be better off with a more powerful amp with more headroom.
5 – 15 watts
These are amps that'll keep up with a well-mannered drummer in a modest-sized room. They can be miked up for louder bandmates in larger venues, and they’re also perfect for providing plenty of clean headroom at bedroom-level volumes.
20 – 40 watts
A real sweet spot for gigging in pubs and clubs. There's usually more than enough clean headroom, plus the facility to produce power-amp distortion at higher volumes. Many amps this size also have attenuators that'll reduce their volume by half, putting saturated tones within easier reach.
50 – 90 watts
Plenty of clean headroom for jazz, as well as genres where the signature sound relies on preamp distortion.
100 watts and above
In recent years, these giant stacks of power have been replaced by smaller amps miked up and played through ever more sophisticated PAs. But some bands rely on the unique sound of a driven stack – there's nothing quite like it.
What are the different types of tubes in an amplifier?
Every amp model has a unique voice that’s influenced by 101 things, including circuit design, speaker choice and so on. One ingredient that has a sizeable impact on the flavor of the overall tone is the type of tube or tubes that have been specified, particularly in the power amp section.
Here's a quick run-through of some of the most popular vacuum tube types and their tonal characteristics. Often, there are sub-types or variations of these tubes that provide subtle (and not so subtle) variations in tone.
12AX7 – the most popular preamp tube by far, the 12AX7 dominates the market. It emits low noise, has a high amplification factor and is easy to drive into pleasing distortion. It's fitted to almost everything, but there are alternatives – such as the 12AU7, which offers lower gain.
Power amp tubes
6V6 – you'll often find this in small US combos. It’s great for deep bass and shimmering highs, so we’re talking things like Fender’s Champ, Princeton and Deluxe amps. It’ll distort, too, so it's useful across a wide variety of musical genres.
EL84 – this delivers a beautifully saturated drive sound with a chiming top end, evocative of the British Invasion. Think Vox AC30.
KT66 – this provides little distortion, so it's perfect for clean sounds. It's also found in high-gain amps where all of the distortion is designed to come from the preamp. Think Marshall JTM45/Bluesbreaker.
6L6/6L6GC – another favorite in US amps, which use it to produce fat, resonant mids and sparkly highs. A relative of the KT66, it's a very popular tube used by Fender, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie and many others.
EL34 – British in flavor, the EL34 produces wonderful mid-to-high-range projection. It has a bell-like clarity and a crushing mid-range crunch. The EL34 reacts particularly well to playing dynamics. Think Vox, Hiwatt, Orange and Marshall.
Other uses for tubes
Tubes are also used in rectifiers and reverb. Rectifiers most commonly use the GZ34 tube, while reverb units will use a 12AX7 or a 12AT7.
Tubes used to be found in many kinds of electronic appliances, but in most products they were made obsolete by solid-state alternatives decades ago. This has reduced the demand for tubes dramatically, and they're now only made in certain parts of the world, such as China, Russia and Slovakia. Quality can vary from very good to rather poor, so buy carefully.
Can you swap one kind of tube for another to get a different sound? Some amp brands actively encourage experimentation; others are adamant that you shouldn't do it. Refer to your amp's manual or seek advice from your local amp dealer.
What is preamp distortion and power amp distortion?
Preamp distortion typically sounds smooth and compressed, allowing for increased sustain at lower volumes. In contrast, power amp distortion sounds less compressed and a lot punchier in the mids. It also tends to react more to playing dynamics.
So how do you know which is which? If your amp, or potential amp, has a master volume, then turn this down low but keep the gain up high. That's preamp distortion you're hearing. Your amp’s EQ controls, bass, middle, treble and so on influence the preamp, which gives you lots of saturated tone shaping opportunities.
Now try the opposite; keep the gain lowish but ramp up the master volume (or just your amp's volume if there's no master). You're now hearing power amp distortion. Power amps rarely have EQ controls, and driving them to distortion usually results in ear-splitting volume levels. This, however, is the way guitarists in the '50s, '60s and '70s used to get their driven tones.
Modern amps tend to have pretty clean power amps, with all the distortion duties assigned to the preamp. If, however, you like playing with power amp distortion, then buy yourself a lower-wattage amp so that you can get the power section to drive more easily.
Will you be using your amp home or away?
If you're a gigging musician, don't underestimate how bulky or heavy some of the more powerful amps are. One reason that modeling boxes and floor units have proved so popular is that their compact size and low weight make them easier to live with.
On a similar note, if you're a bedroom player (nothing wrong with that), think carefully before investing in a big, powerful amp on the basis that it’s the one your favorite guitar hero used or uses. It's true that some can be attenuated, but most likely you'll just end up with an amp that's bound to upset the neighbors.
A great compromise is to get a much smaller amp (the attenuated Tone King Gremlin, for example) that has a line out. You can then play at home to your heart's content but also hook it up to the house PA when gigging. No more back pain loading it into the van, either.
Should I buy a head or combo amp?
Both have their advantages. Combos are convenient for most players, because they're more compact than a stack (a head teamed up with a guitar cabinet), meaning they’re easier to just pick up and run with. That said, split a stack for transportation and the individual parts may well be lighter to carry to the van than a big combo amp. Also, many modern heads will feature line outs that can be hooked up to a PA, so you may not even need a cab.
Stacks sound awesome. Mick Ronson was just one of a number of incredible guitarists in the '70s whose tone relied on a Marshall stack turned up to 11. Four speakers are always going to sound different to two, but these big cabs also put the sound closer to the guitarist’s ears, rather than down by their knees.
Cabinets can also provide more volume, but most combos these days can drive a cab through their speaker out jacks.
Combos sound just as their maker intended. A combo's components will have been carefully selected to work harmoniously together. In contrast, provided the impedance is correct, you can connect a head up to any old cab, which may sound less than optimal.
On the flip side, if you enjoy exploring the sonic possibilities of new equipment (aka GAS), investing in a decent cab and multiple heads may be cheaper than collecting lots of individual combos. They'll take up less room, too.
Does the speaker make a difference in a tube amplifier?
Speaker choice makes a fundamental difference to the sound of a combo or cabinet. There are scores of models – too many to mention here – from vintage reissue to high-tech modern. Some amp designers will even go as far as to fit mismatched speakers in a multi-speaker cabinet to achieve a distinct sound. Popular brands include Jensen, Celestion, Eminence, Electro-Voice and JBL.
As a very rough guide, modern speakers designed for high-gain genres have a tighter response, with more clarity and bottom-end solidity, than vintage speakers, which tend to sound more 'characterful'.
If you're looking for a cab to work with your amp head, or vice versa, just be sure that the power ratings and impedances are compatible.
Hand wiring vs PCB
Way back when, all amps were hand-wired, and popular lore has it that they all sounded fabulous. Then printed circuit boards came along and now everything sounds dire. Only kidding!
Most of us have a romantic view of the benefits of hand-wired amps. After all, Pete, Jimi, Mick, Jeff, Jimmy and Eric would all have played hand-wired amps exclusively back then.
Hand-wiring also lends that boutique, artisanal vibe that makes us feel far more comfortable when handing over a large wedge of cash – we feel a bit short-changed when retro reissues sport PCBs. Point-to-point wiring also looks more beautiful than a soulless circuit board.
Does hand wiring sound better? The jury's out on that one, because both methods of construction can sound superb.
Is it more reliable? If you're on a world tour, frequently bouncing an amp around in the hold of a long-haul aircraft, then PCBs are probably the way to go.
Will hand-wired amps last longer? It's hoped that new legislation will force brands to stock spares for at least 10 years, so your PCB amp should be around in the medium term at least. However, hand-wired amps should be here for as long as somebody keeps selling soldering irons.
It's not unusual for brands to take a hybrid approach, hand-wiring some critical parts but using circuit boards for the rest.
What is an effects loop?
Most modern tube amps will feature an effects loop, which is a handy feature to have if you're using delay, reverb and modulation pedals.
By plugging these kinds of effects into an effects loop, you're removing them from the front of your signal chain and replacing them between the preamp and the power amp. This means that they aren’t negatively influencing the preamp distortion, giving you more control and your resulting tone more clarity.
Fuzz and overdrive pedals aren't such a concern, and are usually best left at the beginning of your signal chain. Effects loops are a 'nice-to-have' feature, rather than a must.
What do these bits do?
When looking for an amp, you may come across terminology that's readily banded about but rarely explained. Don't worry, we've got your back.
Rectifier: A rectifier converts AC voltage into the high DC voltage that your amplifier's valves need in order to operate. In vintage amps these were valve-driven, but most modern amps now use solid-state rectifiers because they are more reliable and more efficient.
However, purists maintain that valve rectifiers help amplifiers to sound more compressed, loose and organic.
Multiple rectifiers – dual, triple and so on – are used to increase wattage/power. They sound cooler in marketing materials, too.
Bias: In a nutshell, going through the process of biasing your amp will enable the power amp tubes to run optimally. You'll hear better tone and benefit from longer tube life. Depending on the amp, biasing may be recommended every time you change the tubes or only if you decide to fit ones with a different specification.
A quick word of warning: the process can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, so it may be best left to your friendly guitar technician.
Plexi: Don't worry, plexi isn't a technical term at all. It originates from the series of amps that Marshall built in the '60s that featured Plexiglas panels – most notably the 1959 Super Lead. Since then, it's been used to describe said amps – or, more generically, the characteristic Marshall sound from that period.
It's a class thing
Amp manufacturers will often proudly publish amplifier class designations in their marketing specs, so it's useful to have some insight into what they mean. We've simplified the explanations somewhat for brevity!
You'd think that Class A amplifiers would be the best of the best, wouldn't you? In fact, in Class A amps, the power valves are working all the time, which makes the amp very inefficient and less able to produce power. That said, they’re favored for their sensitivity to touch and playing dynamics.
In Class B amps, the valves get to have a rest for half the time. The upshot of this is that they're much more efficient and can produce more power. However, the unusual way in which Class B delivers power and distortion isn't well suited to guitar amplifiers, so you won't ever see them.
Class AB amplifiers are a mix of the two technologies, blending some of the dynamic playing characteristics of Class A with the power of Class B. Class AB amps are said to be punchier with firmer lows.
Which is better? Despite what many people believe, these class ratings are not indicative of quality. They're just technical terms to describe how a power section works, that's all.
One thing we can be sure of is that all tube amps are in a class of their own.
Find out more about how we make our recommendations and how we test each of the products in our buyer's guides.
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